In the 930s, a Norwegian called Gunnbjörn Ulf-Krákason was blown off course west of Iceland by a storm and saw some rocky outcroppings of another landmass. In 982, Eric the Red (Eiríkr rauđi), another Norwegian who had already been outlawed from Norway and from the first place he settled in Iceland for his habit of killing people, was banished from the country for three years. So he decided to go looking for the mystery land, and was delighted to find a large and attractive looking body of land with nobody living there. (The ancestors of the current Inuit inhabitants are thought to have arrived around 1200.) He and his crew explored up and down the southwest coast for three years, marking out sites for future settlement and noting the wealth of land and sea animals and fish. When he returned he called it Greenland because it was green and because he wanted to attract settlers. "People would be eager to go there if it had a good name."

Iceland had had a severe famine ten years before, and in any case there was a worsening population problem. So when he returned in 986, 25 ships full of settlers accompanied him. 14 made it to what came to be called the Eastern Settlement (around modern Julianehĺb). Within ten years the Western Settlement had been established about ten miles up the coast, at modern Nuuk/Godthĺb, and a third, smaller settlement was just north of the Eastern Settlement, around what is now Ivigtut. By the fourteenth century the population had grown from about 450 to about 3,000.

The climate was warmer at that time, and farming was more successful in Greenland than one might imagine. The settlers also hunted further up the coast. But they needed trade to supplement their resources, even more so than the Icelanders. Eric the Red's son Leif was one of many who converted to Xianity to facilitate trade, and all the Greenlanders converted soon after Iceland voted to do so, in the early 11th century. Norway annexed Greenland in 1261. Its bishop was subordinated to the archdiocese of Nidaros (now Trondheim).

The warming period started to give way to a "Little Ice Age" around 1300. Then in the 14th century Norway was extremely badly impacted by the Bubonic Plague. Norwegian ships stopped coming, until in 1721 the Norwegians started worrying that the Greenlanders might have lapsed into heathenry and sent out a missionary expedition. They found no Norse inhabitants at all, only Inuit, whom they baptized instead and asserted sovereignty over.

The Norse are believed to have died out in the 15th century, possibly earlier. The bones that have been found show signs of malnutrition. The argument is commonly made that they refused to adapt their diet to the local environment, but they had been eating a lot of fish from the 13th century on, and the hunting camps show that they successfully hunted seals and walruses. They may have been too reluctant to abandon livestock farming as the climate became too cold. They had also caused erosion and loss of topsoil as the Icelanders had. Another new factor was the influx of Inuit, culturally better adapted to the Arctic; at first the Norse apparently coexisted well with them, but at some point they came into conflict, presumably over hunting and fishing, and fighting between the two groups may have worn them down, preventing them from getting in enough food.

A runestone from Greenland.

By Runemaster is unknown ( [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

[1. Greenland Runestone image from]


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